HARARE – At least 23 miners are feared dead in central Zimbabwe after a dam wall broke and flooded the shafts of two gold mines in which they were working illegally, officials said Thursday.
A police spokeswoman told the state-run Herald newspaper that at least 19 miners were down one of the mine shafts while another four were down a second mine.
“Whatever the number of trapped people may be, chances of rescuing any survivors are very slim,” Fortunate Muzulu, an administrator for the Mhondoro-Ngezi district, told the paper.
Muzulu said rescuers were in contact with the owners of one of the mines, RioZim, for assistance with the rescue operations.
Images captured by an epa-efe photojournalist on the ground showed locals, family members and fellow miners gathering above the mine shafts at Cricket Mine.
Efforts were being made to pump the water out of the shafts in order to be able to recover the miners.
Both mines are located in the Battlefields district, near the central gold-mining town of Kadoma.
The incident took place late on Tuesday following a period of heavy rain.
There were fears that the death toll could rise as exact figures of just how many miners were underground at the time of the flood could not be established.
Miners have been known to sneak illegally into abandoned mines under the cover of darkness to mine ore.
RioZim last week suspended operations at its three active gold mines because the cash-strapped Zimbabwe government has not been able to pay for gold deliveries made to the state-run refinery.
The recovery operations were being carried out by the Ministry of Mines and Mining Development, a spokesperson for RioZim, Wilson Gwatiringa, was cited local media as saying.
The spokesperson said the shafts were 20 meters (65 feet) deep and water levels had been rising.
Due to Zimbabwe’s long-running economic problems and the high unemployment rate, many people risk their lives down mines.
Small-scale miners produced more than half of the more than 30 tons of gold delivered last year.